Luke 12. 49-53
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
I’m sorry – but this morning’s Gospel always makes me giggle. As does the corresponding passage in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the reference to mothers-in-law. It always takes me back to my childhood, and to the humour of its time from such comedians as Les Dawson. He used to say things like “We always know when my mother-in-law is coming up the path. The mice start throwing themselves at the traps!”.
We still find such humour amusing, don’t we? Because we’ve all experienced – or at least observed – the sometimes-strained relationships of family-life. As the old saying goes, ‘you can choose your friends…but you’re stuck with your family!’. It’s natural for parents and grandparents to have different ideas about how to bring up the grand-children, for example. Or different ideas about what job that a son-in-law or daughter-in-law ought to be doing. And sometimes, within families, we struggle to ‘zip-it’!
But Jesus adds another layer to this natural tension. He warns his followers that just by choosing to follow him, division will almost inevitably flow. Jesus says that his followers may have to make some pretty tough decisions about where their allegiance lies. "Whosever does not take up his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me..." and so on.
The Christian faith, openly declared, is dangerous to the world. It is a way of life which stands in opposition to the way that many people chose to live. It is a way of peace, not war. It is a way of self-control, not pleasure-seeking. It is a way of poverty, simplicity and charity, not materialism and consumerism.
Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that families are a bad thing. God loves families! God invented families. The best families give us companionship and love, a place to feel secure, a place to make mistakes, and still be accepted.
But Jesus says to us, through this reading, that we have an even higher loyalty...a loyalty that only a God could claim...a loyalty to Him.
And that, Jesus warns, will bring division even between members of the same family, and (through the lens of Matthew’s account) even a kind of metaphorical sword. Because God has an even higher claim on our loyalty than our families.... even if our families don't acknowledge him.
That higher claim on our loyalties can have some difficult consequences. It can cause real tension between family members when some are trying to follow the Way of Christ, and others are following the way of the world. Big family decisions can be fraught with tension.
Perhaps, for example, there’s a debate over where to go on holiday? One side of the family fancies maxing-out the credit card with an expensive trip to the other side of the world. But, perhaps the Christian in that decision wants to question whether a cheaper holiday, closer to home, would be a better use of the resources God has given.
Perhaps, for example, one-side of the family has had an argument with a neighbour, and a kind of warfare has opened up over a fence boundary or something. They feel obliged to stand their ground and carry on the fight. But the follower of Jesus’ Way wants to turn the other cheek, and pursue the path of peace.
Perhaps, for example, there’s division about how the whole family should spend Sunday together. The follower of Jesus feels drawn to church, to express their love and worship of God with other believers. But the other family members want to head to the beach, nice and early, to get a good spot.
Perhaps, for example, there’s an argument about how much money to give to charity, or to the work of God’s church. The follower of Jesus Way knows that extravagant generosity and charity are fundamental to the Christian life and the nature of God. But other family members want to hold on to as much money as possible, if only to hand it on to the next generation.
Perhaps the tension is over what TV programmes to watch – violent, sexist, racist fare? Or something life-giving and spiritually awakening.
And so on. Time and again, families which are not working together towards a common spiritual goal find that these kinds of tensions arise. They are nothing new. Even Jesus’ own mother, brother and sisters tried to pull him aside from the path he knew he was called to follow.
There is little comfort to offer about these situations. Jesus was utterly truthful, and utterly honest when he warned that following his Way comes with a heavy price. For Jesus himself, that price included persecution, torture and death. He asks us to follow his Way – offering only that peace which passes all understanding that comes from a life lived with God, rather than against God.
May God give you the strength to stand up for Jesus, and for his radical call to a Way of truth, justice, simplicity and charity. May you carry your cross, even when your family or neighbours tempt you to another path - an easier path, a path of least resistance. Pray for your families. Be strong in the Lord. Carry your cross. And hold out for the reward of heaven. Amen.
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